A group of Tel Aviv University researchers announced an unprecedented feat Monday: They produced the first 3-D-printed heart using a patient’s own cells.

The scientists — professors Tal Dvir and Assaf Shapira and doctoral student Nadav Noor — documented their work in a study published in Advanced Science. The report revealed that the historic creation had functioning blood vessels and living cells, marking major progress in the field. (Although their 3-D-printed heart was rabbit-size, the same process could theoretically 3-D-print a human-size heart in the future.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2019, there have been 864 heart transplants. More than 3,800 people are on the waiting list for a heart transplant, according to data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services. A transplant is often the last resort for individuals suffering the final stages of congestive heart failure.

Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, commended the development. As an expert in tissue engineering and printable organs, Atala led the team that first 3-D-printed ear, bone and muscle structures and successfully transplanted them into a human.

Atala said the challenge with the heart is “that you really can’t get heart cells from a patient. They don’t replicate readily outside the body.”

Instead, the newly developed process — known as “cardiac tissue engineering” — aimed to 3-D-print heart tissue. It begins by taking cardiac tissue from the patient. The biological cells from that tissue are reprogrammed into stem cells, which are then induced and turned into heart cells. The cells are mixed with a hydrogel, and the combination is then used as “ink” for the 3-D printer.

Because these 3-D-printed cells are from the same patient, Atala said, the body is less likely to reject the new heart. “Hopefully in the future we can avoid the body rejecting organs and hopefully reduce the shortage of organs,” he said,

The goal is that, one day, patients will not have to wait on the national transplant list.

“Our results demonstrate the potential of our approach for engineering personalized tissue and organ replacement in the future,” Dvir, the lead researcher, told the Jerusalem Post.

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